TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS UPDATE 

lWINSTON HEADING FOR A PRIME OPPORTUNITY TO SOLIDIFY HIS FUTURE

Can he do it again?

According to the Sports Xchange, that's what the Buccaneers Bucs are wondering after watching quarterback Jameis Winston play a remarkably clean game last Sunday in a 27-9 win over the San Francisco 49ers.

Returning from a three-game benching, Winston made good on his vow not to turn the football over and went 29 of 38 for 312 yards with two touchdown passes and no interceptions.

He may not win enough of the final five games to assure the Bucs (4-7) a postseason spot. But what if Winston rises to the challenge Sunday, or the week after against the Saints, or goes into Baltimore and upsets the Ravens?

Why can't he just choose to play this way all the time?

"No player is going out there choosing not to play well," head coach Dirk Koetter said Monday. "No one chooses that. Jameis made good decisions with the football (Sunday). Played a clean game. We had a good result. We win the turnover margin. We get two takeaways. We don't turn it over."

Of course, the Bucs have seen this before.

Winston went on a pretty good run during the Bucs' five-game winning streak in 2016 during which he threw six touchdown passes and only three interceptions to breathe new life into what became a 9-7 season. At the time, he was throwing to Mike Evans, Adam Humphries and Cameron Brate but also was getting contributions from players like Freddie Martino and Cecil Shorts.

"I thought he made really good decisions," Koetter said of Winston. "He made decisive decisions. He didn't hold it too long and he didn't wait for plays to develop that might happen. As time went on, he took the sure thing when it was there and then Jameis also did an excellent job on scramble plays, making decisions outside the pocket whether to throw or run."

The Panthers will represent a step up in class for Winston. After all, the 49ers were playing their No. 3 quarterback and their best defensive player had been released after getting arrested in Tampa for domestic violence the night before the game.

But Carolina is reeling. They have lost three in a row and are only 1-5 on the road this season. During their three-game losing streak, the Panthers pass defense has allowed an NFL-worst 8-0 TD-INT ratio and a 128.6 passer rating, second-worst in the NFL from Weeks 10-12, per NextGenStats.

The Panthers have failed to pressure the QB during their three-game slide and the lack of pass rush has put increased pressure on the Panthers' defensive backs, who have struggled in recent weeks.

Per ESPN.com, the Panthers have surrendered an average of 22.5 fantasy points per game to opposing quarterbacks in the past five weeks, fourth-highest in the league, including a 24.0-point performance by Winston's teammate and the former starter, Ryan Fitzpatrick, despite Fitzpatrick committing a pair of turnovers in that game.

The Bucs have tried a lot in recent games to achieve more balance on offense.

The explosive plays may be down, but they are running the football more consistently and helping a porous defense. At home the last two games, the Bucs have allowed 16 and nine points, respectively. They still are hit hard by injuries in the secondary. But the defensive line is playing better, having produced eight sacks in the past two games.

The Bucs will hope that Winston can protect the football and use his receivers - Evans, Humphries, Chris Godwin and Brate - to move the football and dominate time of possession.

Evans was targeted 10 times in the Bucs' first meeting with Carolina and caught only one pass for 16 yards, one of his worst games as a pro. Credit cornerback James Bradberry, who did an excellent job in coverage. Evans became the third player to go over 1,000 yards receiving in each of his first five seasons.

He will be seeking revenge tomorrow.

And he'll be doing it against a defense that's allowed multiple receiver touchdowns in three of their past four games.

And in case you missed it, he'll be doing it without DeSean Jackson in the mix; Jackson has been ruled out due to a thumb injury.

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